Bar News - February 23, 2007
Book Review: "The Supremes’ Greatest Hits" By Michael G. Trachtman
By: David M. Hilts
No, it’s not a book about Diana Ross and the Supremes’ hit songs. Rather, it’s about the other Supremes—the Justices whose decisions impact the lives of Americans in a multitude of different ways.
For instance: How many people take for granted the competitive pricing of goods in our economy? How many people take for granted that their employers have to pay a minimum wage, or that employees can sue for workplace harassment? Or, how many people have asked what restrictions exist upon the powers of a wartime president?
In The Supremes’ Greatest Hits: The 34 Supreme Court Cases That Most Directly Affect Your Life, Attorney Michael G. Trachtman reviews the Supreme Court cases which established the rights and laws indicated in these questions, as well as many others which shape the world in which Americans live.
Along the way, Trachtman describes the Supreme Court, how it came into being and how it secured for itself—within the open framework of the Constitution—the power of judicial review. Although the purpose of the book, as apparent from the title, is to give the reader a crash course in understanding the origins of various Court-interpreted rights and freedoms, Trachtman’s purpose is also, “to enable the reader to appreciate the mammoth difficulty and consequence of the issues the Supreme Court has had to wrestle with, and to allow the reader to reach an informed judgment on whether the Supreme Court has earned its moral authority or not,” which, Trachtman points out “is, really, the only authority the Court ultimately has.” Trachtman tries to develop in his readers a sensitivity not only to the power that is wielded by the Court, but also to its humanity and fallibility.
Trachtman is successful in achieving his stated goals. In his biographical note, he states that he, “has spent thousands of hours learning how not to write as a lawyer”—a very laudable accomplishment. In providing meaningful analyses of the 34 cases he reviews, Trachtman is concise, never spending more than six pages on any one case, and usually only devoting three or four pages to each. In spite of this brevity, Trachtman manages to convey the sociological, political and/or economic context for each decision, enough for the reader to begin to appreciate the impact of each decision, both at the time of its rendering and for the foreseeable future. Obviously, a thorough understanding of many, if not all, of these cases and their impact would take reading the primary material and even perhaps having a legal education.
Trachtman’s target readership appears to be high school graduates with an interest in the law and our nation’s history, not just attorneys. Thus, Trachtman takes the time to cover some of the basics that all lawyers should recall (at least to some degree!): the Bill of Rights and landmark constitutional law cases, such as Marbury v. Madison (judicial review), Miranda v. Arizona (right against self-incrimination), Griswold v. Connecticut (right of privacy), Roe v. Wade (privacy/abortion), Brown v. Board of Education (desegregation) and New York Times v. Sullivan (defamation/public figures).
Trachtman also reviews, in topical groupings, cases that may not be as easy for an attorney to remember, including cases of more recent vintage: Buckley v. Valeo (campaign finance controls), Washington v. Glucksburg (right to die), Burlington Industries v. Ellerth (workplace harassment), Kelo v. New London (eminent domain), MGM Studios v. Grokster (Internet copyright infringement), Kyllo v. U.S. (unreasonable searches via high-tech surveillance) and U.S. v. American Library Association (Internet censorship for child protection).
In spite of its heady subject matter, Greatest Hits proves to be a very fast read and very worthwhile. Think of it as a USA Today-style version of a combination of the Constitutional Law classes you had with a little of a Federal Courts class mixed in. Trachtman’s book provides a painless refresher course, while at the same time managing to convey information that may not be widely known. The biggest obstacle members of the Bar will face in reading Greatest Hits will be in deciding to read about the law in their down time.
David M. Hilts, a member of the new Lawyer’s Committee, is with the Attorney General’s office in Concord. He has been a member of the NH Bar since 2002.